KEY WEST, Fla., May 1 (JTA) — Strolling through the bustling streets of this historic town, once home to Ernest Hemingway, the last thing one expects to hear from the shopkeepers is fluent Hebrew. Yet that is the language spoken by the tanned young men and women who own many of the stores around this scenic town, located on the last of a series of islands off the southernmost tip of Florida. Key West has recently become a mecca for young Israelis hoping to make a lot of money quickly. The fact that the balmy weather and laid-back atmosphere remind them of Tel Aviv or Eilat has also lured them here. “This place is perfect,” says 30-year-old Avi, owner of a large T-shirt store just off the main street. “I’m really raking in the money. In Israel, it would take me 10 years to earn what I’ve made here in two. Plus, the whole scene is comfortable. “There are loads of bars, good restaurants and the sea. There’s no way I’d give this up right now. Maybe in ten years, but not now.” Avi, one of the many Israeli expatriates who volunteered information but not a last name, is clearly far from alone. “We came here to make money, and that’s why we stay,” acknowledges Yossi, another Israeli store owner. “Life in Israel is hard, and I don’t just mean financially. There’s the army to deal with, and terrorism. Can you blame us for wanting a taste of the good life?” According to Rabbi Ya’akov Zucker, the 24-year-old leader of the town’s small Lubavitch-sponsored congregation, “There are at least 200 Israelis here, out of a total Jewish population of 1,000. “Most of the Israelis aren’t religious — there are maybe 20 Shabbos- observant people in the whole community — but they are proud of their Judaism and identify with the community.” While traditionally seen as a getaway for the rich and those seeking an escape from northern urban sprawl, Jews have lived in Key West for more than a century. Rabbi Paul Grob, leader of the Bnai Zion Synagogue, says that the congregation has been in existence “for more than 110 years.” The synagogue, which is aligned with the Conservative movement, has approximately 125 member families, not counting what Grob calls “seasonal snowbirds” — part-time residents who travel here for the winter months. While Key West, with its teeming discos and bars, is hardly a bastion of traditional Yiddishkeit, both rabbis say that the area is experiencing a small-scale religious renewal. In addition to the well-maintained synagogue, dating back to 1880, and a Jewish cemetery, both congregations are working together to foster a Jewish atmosphere. Unlike many communities, which have been plagued by rifts between Orthodox and non-Orthodox streams of Judaism, Key West appears to be a model of religious cooperation. Referring to the Lubavitch congregation, which first set up shop locally less than two years ago, Grob says, “We’re very happy to have Chabad here, because they’ve added a wonderful dimension. “We hold joint activities, like the Purim carnival, which attract the whole community.” Thanks to the efforts of Zucker, whose black hat and coat evoke more than a few stares in this hot-weather resort, the Jewish community now has a Hebrew school and a summer camp. Come September, there also will be a pre-school. “This summer, we hope to have 30 kids enrolled in summer camp,” says Zucker, himself the father of a baby girl. “We’re not in competition” with the Conservative congregation, he adds. “On Chanukah, we jointly lit what turned out to be the southernmost menorah in the United States. We accomplish more by working together.” While fervently Orthodox Jews might find Key West’s “anything- goes” lifestyle too secular for their liking, Jews of any persuasion are welcome to attend Shabbat services which are held at both congregations. Tourists and residents are invited to Zucker’s large communal Shabbat lunch and dinners, for which there is no fee, but donations are accepted. On weekdays, the Lubavitch congregation holds a minyan three times every day.
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